Why we need to stop talking about wellbeing

‘If you steal another person’s time you are as big a thief as one who steals another person’s money … Do you steal from yourself?’
– Arne Sigurd Rognan Nielsen

People are trying to prey upon your mental health like it’s something to be conquered.

You see, the media, the advertisement industry and independent consultancies have discovered the goldmine that is wellbeing. Why is it so? Because when intertwined with the possibility that you are already suffering from even a moderate amount of stress, it becomes all too easy for someone to sell you something to resolve a matter like wellbeing that is practically impossible to measure.

You will try (and fail) to eat seven vegetables a day, or clamber out of bed four days out of seven at 5.30 a.m. to attempt (and fail) that yoga YouTube tutorial, skipping over the beginner’s one and straight to the eight-minute power-yoga, expert level, because that’s going to help you get relaxed quicker. You will get an early night, listening to white noise – only to sit curled around your phone until an ungodly hour, comparing yourself in measurements of weight, height, age, success (in monetary terms or otherwise), achievements, or all other metrics of what you perceive to be the success or happiness of others. You will see happiness, contentment, doing well at ‘it’ (whatever ‘it’ may be) as an endpoint, rather than the journey that you are on. You will never reach the end of your journey. There is no end. But you will never stop to consider how effective these routines are, or even why they may not be working. You will simply focus on the fact that you are failing at them.

As a teacher, you are even more susceptible. Long hours? Check. Workload that feels both unwieldy and never-ending? Check. Guilt- ridden occupation? Check. Pressures of external agencies? Check. At its most basic, lack of fresh air? Check. Daylight? Check. Poor diet? The emergency chocolate drawer.

The public sector is under the largest strain, with horror stories of schools with photocopying restrictions at best, and teachers suffering from chronic, recurrent mental health problems at worst. As a result of work, one in five of you reading will suffer panic attacks, almost half will have issues concentrating (remember the last week of term, when the words coming out of your mouth just won’t stay in the right order?) and over half will have difficulty sleeping on a regular basis.1 If you’re reading this in January, you are all too aware that you are entering the most difficult point of the academic year, with the chances of you reading this in natural daylight slim to none. If you are reading this in the summer holidays, you will be lying on a sunbed, thoughts of results day nestled in the back of your mind. Work follows you around like a silent companion, because you care about the work. But does it care about you?

Wellbeing has become like happiness: something that we talk about; a distant concept that no one actually masters in reality. A feature on television adverts or a pay-as-you-go fitness plan, accomplished by strangers and unrecognisable to any of us as reasonable or achievable within our lives as teachers. Something to be worked at. Wellbeing is hard to attain, because it is not an outcome, but part of the process. Wellbeing is a by-product of the solid grounding of several successful strategies on a teaching, leading and whole-school level. It’s the end result, but not the product. Your wellbeing is not a state in isolation that you can collect from the supermarket on the way home in the form of a protein shake, or something that will slot neatly into an hour of a Saturday morning in the shape of a sloth to 10k programme, which will then set you up nicely for the remaining 167 hours of your week. More to the point, if you do not have time in the workplace to feel fulfilled, or that you are meeting regular milestones that you feel are worthy of self-recognition, fitting in a run on a Saturday morning after an exhausting week is the last thing on your mind.

Considering recent responses to workload is very revealing, and an apt place to start our exploration. Under Nicky Morgan’s reign as Education Secretary in 2015, 44,000 teachers completed the workload challenge, sharing the root causes of their workload and exactly where their 50–70 hours a week were being spent. Three review groups were set up, with a plethora of recommendations resulting from their respective reports. The recommendations for teachers on the planning guide? Plan collaboratively, and use guides and textbooks to save on prep time. What was lacking was the way that these would be implemented, the resources created to enable teachers to do so, and the training on how collaborative planning would be embedded into a school directive.

Ofsted has attempted to provide support through the infamous myth busters campaign in 2016,2 which outlined eleven key principles for schools to understand perhaps not so much what Ofsted did want to see during an inspection, but that they wanted schools to stop investing energy into the wrong sort of busyness through excessive evidencing. Unfortunately, some of it fell unnoticed or disregarded: posters stuck in staff rooms gathered dust, as the processes continued to be the same, and policies remained unaltered in schools.

Misinterpretation of key information from the campaign was lost as senior leadership teams encouraged staff to create arbitrary evidence folders ‘to make it easier to see progress’. Seating plans continued to be colour coded, pupil premium students’ books marked first, verbal feedback stamps at the ready. Date stamping of marking to prove when it had been done. Minutes and minutes of time dedicated to tasks which carried absolutely no evidence of impact, because it was deemed to be effective.

The myth busters campaign was not revolutionary, brand-new information; Ofsted released a similar document in 2005 with the slightly less media-worthy title, ‘Clarification for schools’, which, again, made a profound attempt to break down the barriers and misconceptions that our regulators were asking for excessive evidencing or extravagant reams of data. Whilst Ofsted make an easy target for us all to poke a pitchfork at, the nuts and bolts of workload run fundamentally deeper than simply drawing the hasty conclusion that we are being dragged to account by one solitary external agency.

Admittedly, the historic relationship between Ofsted and schools means that Ofsted struggles to be viewed as anything more than a measuring stick, as opposed to the support mechanism that they have provided as an organisation for many years.

Finally, November 2018 sees the publication of the interim findings of Amanda Spielman’s research into teacher wellbeing during summer of that year.3 The survey’s reach was not equal to that of union surveys of the same nature (84% of NASUWT’s membership body completed a questionnaire), but the research was finally drawing two important elements together: wellbeing, and workload. We are at last having conversations about how our workload is, of course, intrinsically linked to our wellbeing. The report also made the acknowledgement that this wasn’t just about the reduction of workload, but that there were genuine concerns revealed from the HSE report that teaching was one of the top three occupations in the UK where individuals suffered from severe depression and stress.4 Action was required nationally because not only was the work too much for teachers, but it was enough to make them leave – because, quite rationally, they were making a decision between their health and their job.

However, the gap between policy change and the reality of teacher narrative around mental health could not paint a starker image. As I write this in National Mental Health Awareness week, Education Support report that they have had their highest number of calls from educational staff this month. Their helpline report informs that 57% of their calls are from educational staff that have been in the profession for five years or less.5 Why might that be? The evidence provides a multitude of anecdotal responses: wrong school, challenging working conditions, poor leadership, unsupportive systems, no provisory networks, and a failure to support people on a human level. Teaching is a broken system at its very worst; and at best, a series of poorly constructed franchise outlets, all trying to do the same thing differently, for their own context, but not necessarily in the most effective way. How can we inform and empower ourselves to lessen the damage?

I have felt the weight of a hefty and unwieldy workload at various points throughout my career. I will often write in this book with reference to English as my topic of choice; I know that teachers of other subjects share a variation of this workload. A classroom teacher teaches 22 hours a week; that leaves, on paper, 101⁄2 hours for: internal emails, marking and feedback generation, parent contact, data input, planning, resourcing, meetings, duties, standardisation, moderation, continuing professional development and everything in between. When it’s stated as so much time, even with the ream of tasks, why is it that teachers are reporting such a monumentally overworked schedule in proportion to that 321⁄2-hour ideal, with some working in excess of 60 hours a week regularly, without question, all year round?
Schools have the best of intentions: no one, at any layer of a school system – and I stand by this statement with utter conviction- no one is setting out to do a poor job. Unfortunately, ‘educational systems seem to rush to implementation with little understanding of what new standards imply for the work of teachers and students and the resources needed to support that work, including appropriate means of assessment and evaluation’.6 I will start with the caveat that everything I explore or outline in this book needs time and structure to do so successfully; if we are to create a model in schools that will last to support even me to retirement then we must set out as we mean to go on: through the avoidance of a ‘plastered cracks’ approach.

‘Teacher stress is the collective responsibility of teachers, principals, training programs, and superintendents, and educators ignore it at their own peril. Much can be done at the personal, interpersonal, and organizational levels.’7 But for some, this feels like a last-chance saloon, as teachers leave before their careers have truly begun. Teaching is a type of consumption: if well executed in schools in a way that aligns with purpose – to make staff feel as though they have found their place – it can feel like an exquisitely cooked meal: satisfying and fulfilling. At its worst? It leaves a bitter taste.

We need to talk about wellbeing in a concrete fashion, and not in the form of a cake on a Friday, or the promise of a sports club that we are too exhausted to attend. Foundations are certainly not built on sugar and fatigue, and when you are speaking to a collective who train, sacrifice and give as much as the teaching profession do – regularly and repeatedly – it just isn’t good enough. At its very core, the mental health of teachers is deteriorating because when we lose a sense of moral purpose or feel as though our moral purpose can no longer be fulfilled, the reasons that we came into teaching in the first place lose substance.
What if the professional bodies and associated agencies within education and unions accompanied teachers in looking at the fundamental methods that would make people feel more valued, less tired, more productive, less despairing, more successful in accomplishing their personal and professional goals, less worthless – and it didn’t really cost anything, or very little? Wouldn’t that be an interesting thing to act upon? What if we started examining wellbeing not as something to tick off, but as an ingrained part of school life, through our evidence-informed practice and approach – with a consideration of people at the heart?

How do we start to examine workload in a way that moves beyond the current landscape? How do we find a semblance of purpose?

This blog is the preface to my first book entitled Stop Talking About Wellbeing: A Pragmatuc Approach to Teacher Workload, out 22nd February. It’s available to pre- order here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1912906481

1 Comment

  1. Much needed, brilliant blog. In my first school I knew that I could meet all the demands that were made if I got in before 7 and left at 7, but that I”d burn out if I stayed too long. About to go into my next teaching job now. I love teaching, but if it is like this then I know I don’t have the stamina to do it for the rest of my life.

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